This week’s story, “Come to me softly”, is set against the backdrop of a family gathering in the Berkshires, where the extended family of three sisters – Louise, Lily and Eleanor – meet as they do every summer. When did you think of this as the scenario for a story?
It came from a dream I had about these sisters doing this strange ceremony to honor their dead sister. I woke up from this dream not because I was scared or startled, my usual exit ramps, but because I was crying. Now on occasion I have shouted because of a dream, shouted “Nix! Nix! Nix!” and jumped off the bed, but I have never cried like that before. It was almost like lust. So that was interesting. And the dream was so telling that it kind of pushed its way into becoming a story. Plus, as any creative-writing teacher will tell you, you should always, always, always write about your dreams. It’s practically rule #1.
There are numerous relatives at the gathering, all of whom will watch or participate in the ceremony in honor of the dead sister, KK, who died as a teenager. A handful appear as distinct characters in the story, among them Mickey, Eleanor’s ex-husband, who has recently recovered from cancer, and his grandson Miles. Did you know from the start that these two would have a bigger role in the story?
I always had the sisters; they, like an image, burned brightly. And a boy was a reader of the collective praise, but his role as Miles was reinforced in the production after the dream. Mickey? He was invented and is essentially the proxy reader, the one who relives the ceremony under new, deeper circumstances. The biggest and most helpful decision I made was to split the story into four parts; it added a multidimensional quality to the work, especially by ending with the sisters as maidens when their eulogy is read by Miles, who allows time to occupy a negative space.
Most of the relatives Mickey encounters say something like “Mickey, you look great!” But Miles asks him directly about his feeding tube. What would Mickey prefer?
I think being asked about the probe was a new experience for Mickey. And refreshing in its openness, even if it merely reflects morbid curiosity (and, in Miles’s case, a dare from his older brother). It’s like when I read a byline: I always want to know the cause of death. It seems important to me, and I can feel cheated, to the point of distraction, if I don’t get that particular bit of information. (And yes, I realize we never learn how KK died.) Maybe this says something about my character. I want to know the ending, hold it up against my own potential end (especially the older I get). Being sick, I’ve learned, is an incredibly alienating experience, so when someone engages with your illness, even the small gritty parts, it can feel like a relief. I’d much rather have someone say “I thought you’d look a lot worse” than “Wow, you look amazing.”
The story takes its title from a 1959 song by the Fleetwoods – “this otherworldly song”, as Mickey thinks of it. Why would you use “Come Softly to Me”? Is it a record you’ve always listened to? Does it capture a mood that you are looking for in the story? Are there other songs that you could imagine being played that day in the Berkshires?
I wish I could say I’ve always been obsessed with that song, because it’s a song worthy of obsession—it’s so weird and lovely, as if it were sung by heartbroken teenagers with a secret suicide pact. But really I needed to find a song from that period and so I went to good old Google and looked up the Top Forty from 1959 and there was the Fleetwoods with this killer trail– I had heard it before, but not for a long time. (“Mr. Blue” is great, too.) This is where writing can be fun: those moments when the universe seems to be sitting on your shoulder. “Come Softly to Me” was perfect (although I briefly considered naming the story “In Heaven Everything Is Fine”, from The song Lady in the Radiator in “Eraser head”).
The sisters, who are now grandmothers, have performed this ornate ceremony since they were girls, both commemorating KK and celebrating death. How long did it take you to figure out the details of the ceremony? Did you ever think you went too far?
Like I said, it came in the form of a dream, fully formed. I had to come up with the name of the coffin-like thing that the sisters lie in, hence the Reliquadry, and how it could work. I did sketches and everything. (OK, that was a doodle.) I wanted the vibe of the ceremony to be Shirley Jackson creepy—like, what the hell is going on, are we about to see the end of “The Wickerman”? – and then sneaking in the sweetness of these sad girls, and how their only true power over death was the power of repetition and remembrance, accepting death as a kind of shared notion, both figuratively and literally. If anything, I wondered if I went far enough.
The sisters wear flower girl dresses that have been expanded and repaired over the years and flower crowns made by their grandchildren. How important is the visual aspect of the story?
I’m a visual person, so I could clearly see the dresses in my imagination, but boy, it was hard to describe them. It can be frustrating. I mean, writing is hard enough without amateur textile engineering. I’m not sure it worked. At the end of the day, the idea of a Frankenstein flower girl was the best I could come up with as I wanted those dresses to feel undead yet completely alive, almost like grief itself. In general, the visual often exceeds my ability as a writer, but I try to use this weakness as a strength (which involves turning things sideways, like with the stitching, and saying it looked like “a calendar in Morse code” – I’m not sure , what exactly that means, but I know it evokes something I like).
Younger members of the family now play roles that older relatives once performed. Has KK’s place in the Reliquadry, a four-part coffin-like box made by the girls’ father, allowed her to somehow defeat death? Do you think of “Come Softly to Me” as a story about death?
It is about death and remembrance, holding on to the feelings for those you loved and acknowledging your eventual convergence in memory. I just hope Grim Reaper has Fleetwood’s dunce tones. ♦